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Context of '(Shortly After 9:03 a.m.) September 11, 2001: FAA’s New York and Washington Center Controllers Told to Watch for Suspicious Aircraft'

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Bob Varcadipane.Bob Varcadipane. [Source: NBC News]At the air traffic control tower at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, controllers see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center in the distance and start calling other FAA facilities in the area about this. Controller Rick Tepper looks out the window of the tower across the Hudson River at New York City, and sees the huge cloud of smoke coming from the North Tower, which Flight 11 has crashed into it. He points this out to fellow controller Greg Callahan. In his office at the tower, Bob Varcadipane, the supervisor there, starts receiving a flood of phone calls reporting that a small aircraft has hit the WTC. According to author Lynn Spencer, “The assumption is that only a small plane could have gone so badly off course.” The Newark tower controllers start calling the towers at JFK, La Guardia, and Teterboro Airports, along with other air traffic control facilities in the area, to see if any of them has lost an aircraft. But none say they have; they have not yet been informed of the crash and are shocked at what they see when told to look out their windows at the burning WTC. Varcadipane calls the FAA’s New York Center to find out if they know whose plane hit the Twin Towers. He is told: “No, but Boston Center lost an airplane. They lost an American 767.” Varcadipane wonders if this 767 is the plane that hit the WTC, and says back: “I have a burning building and you have a missing airplane. This is very coincidental.” According to NBC: “a horrific realization dawns on controllers. American Flight 11, still missing from radar, finally has been found.” Word of the plane’s fate subsequently “quickly travels throughout the air traffic control world.” [MSNBC, 9/11/2002; Spencer, 2008, pp. 41-42] However, the FAA’s Indianapolis Center, which handles Flight 77, will reportedly not learn of the first hijackings until around 9:20 a.m. (see (9:20 a.m.-9:21 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 32]

Entity Tags: Teterboro Airport, World Trade Center, Newark International Airport, Rick Tepper, La Guardia Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Bob Varcadipane, Greg Callahan, New York Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Flight 77’s transponder is turned off, meaning that the aircraft’s speed, altitude, and flight information are no longer visible on radar displays at the FAA’s Indianapolis Center. [Federal Aviation Administration, 9/17/2001 pdf file; National Transportation Safety Board, 2/19/2002 pdf file; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 9] The Indianapolis Center air traffic controller in charge of Flight 77 watched the plane go off course and head southwest before its data disappeared from his radar screen. He looks for primary radar signals along the aircraft’s projected flight path as well as in the airspace where it had started to turn, but cannot find it. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] He tries contacting the plane repeatedly, saying “American 77, Indy,” and: “American 77, Indy, radio check. How do you read?” But there is no response. [New York Times, 10/16/2001; New York Times, 10/16/2001]
NEADS Not Contacted - US News and World Report will later comment, “[E]xperts say that an airliner making a 180-degree turn followed by a transponder turnoff should have been a red flag to controllers.” It will quote Robert Cauble, a 20-year veteran of Navy air traffic control, who says: “The fact that the transponder went off, they should have picked up on that immediately. Everyone should have been on alert about what was going on.” [US News and World Report, 10/8/2001] Yet the Indianapolis Center supposedly does not notify NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS). According to the 9/11 Commission, NEADS will only learn that Flight 77 is missing at 9:34 a.m. (see 9:34 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 26-27]
Controller Thinks Plane Suffered Mechanical Failure - While several air traffic control centers were reportedly informed of the Flight 11 hijacking as early as 8:25 a.m. (see 8:25 a.m. September 11, 2001), according to the 9/11 Commission, the controller handling Flight 77 does not realize other aircraft have been hijacked, and he is unaware of the situation in New York. He mistakenly assumes Flight 77 has experienced an electrical or mechanical failure. [Guardian, 10/17/2001; 9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004] After he informs other Indianapolis Center personnel of the developing situation, they will clear all other aircraft from the plane’s westerly route so their safety will not be affected if Flight 77 is still flying along its original path but unable to be heard. [Freni, 2003, pp. 29; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 460; 9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30]
Airline and Possibly Pentagon Learn of Flight 77 Problems - While NEADS is not alerted about the errant aircraft, a controller at the Indianapolis Center will contact American Airlines at 8:58 to inform it that contact has been lost with Flight 77 (see 8:58 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 8/26/2004, pp. 30] And an article in the New York Times will indicate that the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center (NMCC) promptly becomes aware of the problems with Flight 77 (see (Shortly After 8:51 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [New York Times, 9/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Robert Cauble, Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

After the second World Trade Center crash at 9:03 a.m., air traffic controllers at the FAA’s New York Center are told by their supervisors to watch for airplanes whose speed indicates that they are jets, but which either are not responding to commands or have disabled their transponders. Controllers in Washington receive a similar briefing, which will help them pick out hijacked planes more quickly. [New York Times, 9/13/2001] Whether controllers at other FAA air traffic control centers receive similar instructions at this time is unclear, but those at its Indianapolis Center, which is handling Flight 77, are apparently not informed by their supervisors of the unfolding crisis. [9/11 Commission, 6/17/2004; Spencer, 2008, pp. 105-107]

Entity Tags: Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center, New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

A manager at the FAA’s New York Center deliberately destroys an audio tape that was made on September 11, on which several of the center’s air traffic controllers recounted their interactions with the hijacked aircraft. [New York Times, 5/6/2004; Washington Post, 5/7/2004] Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, Kevin Delaney, the New York Center’s quality assurance manager, was instructed to make the tape recording, on which six controllers at the center involved in handling or tracking two of the hijacked aircraft recalled their experiences of what happened (see 11:40 a.m. September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 10/1/2003 pdf file; Washington Post, 5/6/2004; Air Safety Week, 5/17/2004]
Crushes Cassette, Cuts Tape into Small Pieces - But a few months later, some time between December 2001 and February 2002, Delaney destroys the tape. He will later recall that he does so by “crushing the cassette case in his hand, cutting the tape into small pieces, and depositing the pieces in trash cans throughout the center.” A Department of Transportation (DOT) report in 2004 will point out, “It is clear [Delaney] went to great lengths to destroy the tape so that it would never leave the center intact.”
Superiors Not Consulted - Delaney disposes of the tape of his own volition, and without consulting his superiors. However, Mike McCormick, the New York Center manager, will later say that, had Delaney asked for his permission to destroy the tape, he would have given it, since he viewed the tape as only a temporary record.
Two Reasons for Destroying Tape - Delaney will later tell DOT investigators that he destroys the tape for two reasons. Firstly, he considers the creation of the tape to have been contrary to FAA policy for aircraft accidents and incidents, which requires that handwritten statements be made after controllers are able to review certain materials, such as radio transmissions and radar data. (The DOT investigators will dispute this conclusion (see May 6, 2004).) He therefore feels the tape is of limited value relative to the controllers’ written statements (see (Between September 11 and October 2, 2001)). Secondly, Delaney feels the controllers were distressed on 9/11, and therefore not in the correct frame of mind to properly consent to the taping. He bases this assessment partly on what he has seen on television crime shows, about due process and legal rights associated with investigations. But the 2004 DOT report will state, “Under FAA policy, and as supported by air traffic policy experts at FAA headquarters, the tape should have been considered an original record and retained for five years.” A former criminal investigator will comment, “Ray Charles [the blind musician] could see that this was a cover-up.”
Others Not Notified - Delaney destroys the tape without anyone having listened to, copied, or transcribed it. He will not inform the New York Center’s management that he has destroyed the tape until he is asked about it in September 2003, following inquiries by the 9/11 Commission. Materials the New York Center prepares for submission to the Commission will even include a chain-of-custody index that mistakenly indicates the tape still exists. And prior to an investigation by the DOT’s Office of Inspector General in late 2003 and early 2004, apparently no one outside the New York Center will be aware of the existence of the tape, or of its destruction.
Union Told Tape Would Be Destroyed - Delaney previously assured the local vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) that he would “get rid of” the tape once the center’s formal accident package had been completed (see October 2001-February 2002). (This package has now been submitted to FAA headquarters (see November 2001-May 2002).) But Delaney will tell DOT investigators that he did not feel under any pressure from NATCA to destroy the tape. McCormick made a similar agreement with the local NATCA president, that the tape would be destroyed after written statements had been obtained from the controllers (see (Shortly Before 11:40 a.m.) September 11, 2001), but Delaney is unaware of this.
No Regrets - Delaney apparently has no subsequent regrets about destroying the tape. He will later say that, under similar circumstances, he would again follow the same course of action. [US Department of Transportation, 5/4/2004 pdf file; Air Safety Week, 5/17/2004]

Entity Tags: Kevin Delaney, Mike McCormick

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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